Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bowser, The (Mixed) King of Koopas

I used to be a heavy player of video games when I was younger, but as I've made philosophical changes to my being, my interest has waned. My gaming habits are now near nonexistent, but still I enjoy a game every blue moon or so. Recently I've purchased Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story and have already finished it twice. While playing it I noticed something strange: I enjoyed and admired the character of Bowser more than I did the Mario Bros. In fact, despite the fact that Bowser is an evil character, I reacted more strongly to his situations and obstacles than I did the Bros. and even felt offended when the they abandoned Bowser in a near-fatal situation. Considering my interest in morality, in both identifying the proper code of ethics and actively applying it to my life, how is it that I felt more positive emotions towards one of the evil characters in the game than the heroes? I was downright indifferent to Mario and Luigi.

A dietary contradiction in the game gave me a significant lead in my thinking, allowing me to also form an integration across other games and art forms, as I noticed my positive response to Bowser has similarities to my response to other villains. As mentioned many times before, my nutritional guidelines are that of a paleo diet, which consists of high-fat meats, nuts, cocao, vegetables, no grains, and the like. I have obtained significant health benefits from following these guidelines -- such as enjoying food more, sleeping better, losing weight, and more -- but these guidelines are of course still rejected by mainstream "wisdom." Even though nutrition plays no role in M&L there are a few jokes about diet. It's revealed the Bowser's own nutritional guidelines are that of a high-fat diet that consists nearly entirely of meat. Various characters in the game make fun of him for his eating habits, strongly insinuating that his diet is unhealthy, and even Bowser has stated that he eats unhealthy. Among the jokes he is sneered at by an organic carrot farmer who refuses to raise meat and giggled at by his minions when he gorges at a feast. Given the comical nature of these situations, it becomes obvious that the makers of the game adhere to the notion that eating fat is bad for you, insinuating that it's the cause of obesity and degenerative body conditions.

However, the reality in the game is different. Despite being mocked, meat is actually one of the best healing items in the game, besting out the mushrooms the Bros. use and falling short of a piece of candy which fully heals any character. On this diet of nearly pure meat, Bowser is incredibly strong, lean (for his height and body type), amazingly durable (nearly being crushed to death didn't even leave visible wounds), and healthy. While in the game he does overeat to the point of instantly becoming obese, making it look as if it was the fat that made it so, what is ignored is that Bowser also gorges on high-carbohydrate (the kind of carbs that quickly convert to glucose) and sweet dishes such as whole cakes, giant donuts, and pigs in a blanket. In comparison to Bowser's body, the Mario Bros. are individually weaker than Bowser and look almost frail. Diet-wise they're strict vegetarians and won't allow themselves to eat meat even if they collect it after a battle. So comically enough, while Bowser is portrayed as an unhealthy eater, he is in actuality in better physical condition than the Mario Bros., and meat is the superior healing food next to mushrooms.

To summarize, the odd thing is that while the game is trying to influence you to have a certain evaluation of what it presents, the reality of the matter is otherwise. The game tries to make you evaluate Bowser as an unhealthy eater who will eventually develop degenerative health conditions, but in actuality he's enjoys the best physical condition out of all the characters in total and eats a food that drastically improves and maintains his health, much better than the vegetarian Bros.

I thought more fondly of Bowser after making this identification, seeing we shared similar diets, but still wondered why my estimate of him was so positive in comparison to the heroes. A healthy diet does not a good person make. After doing more thinking, I've come to the realization that there are further contradictions in the game and Mario Bros. series in general, where the game's intended portrayal doesn't match up with reality. Bowser isn't actually pure evil, as the intended portrayal is, but rather a being of mixed premises, and the Mario Bros. may in fact not be the heroes they're showcased to be.

Let's start with Bowser's objective status. Don't be mistaken: He is evil, just not pure evil. Wanting and pursuing to rule the world in order to enslave people and physically coerce them into satisfying your wishes is the factor that makes him irredeemably evil, but lumped together with Bowser's evil are virtuous and desirable traits. Take the management of his army for instance. He's not some fool who happened to be able to enlist to his service some other fools in order to incompetently fight for his desires; he's intelligent enough to be able to guide his army strategically and physically strong enough to serve in the ranks, which he has before many times. He's probably even strong enough to take his own army down! The various Mario games try to portray him as a thick-headed aspiring dictator who is simply doomed to failure in his endeavors, but if you look back at the games you'll see that Bowser in nearly all instances came excruciatingly close to succeeding. In his attempts to kidnap Princess Peach and rule the Mushroom Kingdom he has almost always succeeded in hauling Peach to his castle and overwhelming Peach's supposedly "elite" guards; the only obstacles are Mario and Luigi. Bowser raised his children (known as the Koopalings) to a level of competence that they have successfully taken over kingdoms all on their own, making Mario and Luigi's job to dissolve already established dictatorships. Bowser comes amazingly close to establishing his own dictatorship, but probably fails before completion since Mario is able to travel to him so quickly, otherwise Mario would have to overthrow yet another dictatorship.

And what about Bowser's relationships? He is displayed as short-tempered and possibly abusive, but there's evidence that Bowser and his army mutually value one another, as opposed to the army worshiping him while he takes them for granted. As far as I've observed, the only times Bowser has been shown to be abusive to his troops is during slapstick and comedy scenes. Other than that, Bowser takes his army seriously, doesn't inflict injury on them purposely, and even fights with them unhesitatingly when he finds them inadequate. Furthermore, he has even undertaken to bring back to life and nurse to health certain members of his army after they have failed and been killed by Mario or Luigi, and allowed them to continue fighting in his ranks. Even more telling is that the only thing Bowser doesn't seem to tolerate from his army is traitors, as it has been seen before where a member of his army would break off in order to pursue other courses in life, seemingly without Bowser's disapproval. Kamek, the koopa who raised Bowser, has been an active participant in the army for years, but is shown to be retired and running his own business in the first M&L game. Unless I am mistaken, in New Super Mario Bros. Wii Kamek is shown to have rejoined Bowser's army, indicating Bowser had few, if any, qualms with Kamek temporarily pursuing other paths in life, and allowed him to rejoin. Some monty moles, on the other hand, suffered from Bowser's fire breath (albeit in a comical fashion) when they told him they broke from his army to join those of another aspiring dictator, and Bowser killed them after they attempted to murder him.

How Bowser regularly treats people outside of his normal network of associates is questionable as well. In various games, when he visits villages while not implementing a plan of his the citizens are visibly terrified, but at the same time he's not hostile or attempting to impose some harm on them. In M&L:BIS he's even seen engaging in a valuable relationship with a metallic man who wishes to trade with him. After completing a couple favors for the man, you eventually meet him at his permanent location, an outdoor shop for healing items and gear. Given the strength of both the man and his pet dog, Bowser could easily overcome the man and dog, steal all the goods, and then burn down the shop -- but he chooses not to. Instead Bowser agrees to monetarily compensate the man in exchange for his goods, and even undertakes to collect a dozen or so more animals for the metal man's shop, in exchange for the dog. Bowser easily could have gone the route of brute force in this dealing with this stranger, but instead traded to mutual benefit. What's this about him being a thief now?

On the flip side of associates, the army only seems to be afraid of Bowser due to their intense respect and seriousness towards him. They work to help achieve his goals, fight for him, defend him, and even die for him. His goomba minions, in M&L: BIS, don't even seem to mind being set on fire for him, as during one of Bowser's attacks they're shown to willingly and unflinchingly stand still in order to be set on fire by him, and still seem to be concentrating on their attack even as they fall from the sky, engulfed in flames. Let us not forget that Bowser too has suffered serious injuries and has even died before. In all those instances his army has revived and nursed him back to health. A perfect display of this kind of valuing can be seen in New Super Mario Bros. DS, in which Bowser Jr. collects Bowser's bones from molten lava, revives Bowser back to life and full health, and then fights in conjunction with him, standing right in the front in order to protect him.

While Bowser's character isn't developed enough (story-wise) to indicate whether or not he is worthy of such worship, there is still plenty of evidence and implications to draw inferences from. The fact that he keeps trying over and over again to kidnap the princess and take over the world shows us that he has near-infinite resolve, a high work ethic, amazing endurance, and constantly stimulated intellect. Keep in mind that most of his failures have been painful, resulting in serious injury and even death (in New Super Mario Bros. DS you see him turn into lifeless bones after falling into lava) -- and still he comes back. Presentation-wise he shows confidence in himself, high energy, high motivation, focus, and intense hatred towards those that frustrate his desires (not metaphysical reality, but the men who fight him). Even though he is demonstratively evil by what goals he pursues, many of the characteristics that compose Bowser's being are actually desirable traits to have and pursue, and are admirable when they're witnessed in human beings. If you were to omit Bowser's evil intentions a pleasant picture is painted: a guy of great strength and intellect, with respectful and awed followers; a guy who values his family, associates, and monetary wealth; a guy with indestructible resolve, no matter how catastrophic his failures; and more. If you saw a moral human being with these traits, you'd probably value and admire him, and he'd probably accomplish great things in his life and move mankind forward.

The fact that Bowser is portrayed as *pure* evil, however, is a bit disturbing. If I were to send this analysis of Bowser's character to his creator, assuming he'd read this, he'd probably deny that he's trying to portray Bowser's virtuous traits as actually evil. But more of the story becomes clear when you observe Mario, Luigi, and Peach's objective status in comparison. They not only lack much of Bowser's virtuous traits, but even possess vices that dampen their moral character.

To start, take a look at how the supposedly good characters in the Mario Bros. series (such as the mushroom headed toads) treat the three heroes. In this universe, Mario is probably the most talented and heroic being in the entire world, having functioned competently in several careers (baker, medical doctor on call, pilot, tennis player, etc.), developed several physical talents (acrobatic jumping and extreme strength, to name a few), and maintains a consistent resolve despite the frustration of an undefeatable evil. Yet, he's hardly appreciated by the people he saves and offers such immense value to. He has manufactured cookies, cured illnesses, and dissolved oppressive dictatorships, but still he can walk around town much to everyone's indifference. The only time he seems to be actually appreciated is the short time period after he's accomplished a heroic feat, and even then the appreciation appears short-lived. Luigi, while not as talented, is still physically talented and heroic, and yet it has been seen over and over again that people cannot even remember his name, making it seem as if though Mario is one of the few people who values him.

To make matters worse Mario and Luigi live way below their deserved standard of living. Mario used to own a castle, but in recent years he's been shown to live in a small shack-like house with his brother. He and his brother deserve much more, but have been deprived through the unjust treatment of his fellow citizens, and maybe even Peach herself. (More below.) Sure, he does get thank yous and kisses on the cheek after his heroic feats, maybe even a whole cake and parade, but you have to admit that's a pretty crappy reward after you've risked your life countless times. In juxtaposition, Bowser lives in great wealth (albeit probably stolen), a gigantic castle in his likeness, and has hundreds of soldiers who protect him and are in awe of him; Mario and Luigi live in poverty among toads that hardly appreciate them and can in no way protect them competently, as seen by the fact they're always overwhelmed by any evil that chooses to fight them.

Peach, interestingly enough, may not be the person of pure morality as she's presented, and may be evil near the caliber of Bowser! As given by her title of Princess and the fact that her queen mother and king father aren't present, we know that she serves as ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, the head politician if you will. Judging from the game in which you can freely examine the Kingdom, it's apparent that most of Peach's subjects have a low standard of living, and even the subjects that are supposedly wealthy cannot seem to obtain material property that symbolizes it, as many of these wealthy people live in homes equal in size to their lower class counterparts, only better decorated. The only person who is not only wealthy, but enjoys it in terms of fantastic living quarters, servants, and luxurious foods is -- Peach! She doesn't engage in productive work other than ruling the kingdom and has a small, near non-existent record of being a hero (SMB. 2 doesn't count since it was revealed to be Mario dreaming), so we can only deduce that she lives poshly on the taxpayer dime. She may be even a dictator that enforces statist policies on her kingdom, as we learn in the first M&L game that thousands of Mushroom Kingdom coins amounts only to a small handful of Beanbean coins, meaning the Mushroom Kingdom has suffered through the phenomenon of hyperinflation, an economic condition that probably results solely from statist economic policies. How can Peach be seen as good now that we see her as a destructive parasite on her subjects? Her subjects' worship of her can only be explained by bad philosophy that touts the notion of innate values, values that have no relationship to anyone and no grounding in reality.

It prompts the question now why Mario and Luigi choose to save the princess, considering they're unjustly rewarded with cakes and single kisses on the cheek for risking injury, disfigurement, and even life to save her. If Peach truly is a dictator that is economically destructive to her subjects, she may not be worth saving. For God's sakes, despite the absolute knowledge of the dangers she faces, she's unable to build an army that can competently protect her kingdom, since they fail and fall every time the Koopa Troop attacks. Bowser, on the other hand, has enough military power and competence to be able to quickly seize control of most of the world. It's hard to say whether Mario and Luigi's moral character is damaged by choosing to defend the Mushroom Kingdom's brand of dictatorship since we know nothing of their motivation, only that they're two guys that have good intentions. For now I guess we could call them morally innocent, as they may not be intellectual enough to be able to examine the implications of Peach's dictates.

Compared side-by-side to Bowser Mario and Luigi become more unappealing. Mario has a tiny structure (so tiny that Peach has appeared to have been a giantess in comparison to his dwarfish figure), unknown psychological workings and motivation, speaks very little, and lacks depth in his emotions. Luigi is more likable from a humorous standpoint, but the video games make so much fun at his character, everything from the childish color of his socks to his cowardly adverseness to risking his life, we cannot appreciate him as a true hero. I lost taking all seriousness in his character when it was revealed to be one of his attacks to force himself to become obese through overeating and to create a tremor by slamming his body fat onto the ground. Bowser, on the other hand, is big, muscular, fierce, serious, and assertive. While literally a monster, Bowser dominants character-wise.

This explains why Bowser appeals to me more on a philosophic level than Mario or Luigi: Although evil, he has specific traits I explicitly admire and resonate to, and am actively trying to integrate into my own being, minus the enslaving the world bit. When I did some further thinking I also found out that this phenomenon is actually pretty common, explaining further why I've found conventional heroes unattractive most of my life. Let's take a brief look at some other video games.

Everyone's familiar with Sonic the hedgehog, right? In the series the main villain is a mad scientist named Dr. Ivo Robotnik (now conventionally known by the nickname Dr. Eggman). Out of all the mad scientist types I have ever seen, he is almost certainly the one with the greatest demonstrated intellectual ability. Most impressively, he works mostly alone, having only tools and robots to assist him in his endeavors. Through his own intellect and labor he has managed to invent hundreds of machines and robots that number in quantities of thousands. He even managed to create a spaceship, called the Death Egg, similar in size to a planet all by himself. He's not afraid to follow and put to action his own judgment, and regularly risks his life by utilizing machines that are newly invented and thus have no record of dependability or safety. He has even been inside machines while they exploded, and has the intellectual foresight to install safety measures that allow him to escape uninjured and the courage to continue using and testing new inventions.

His opposition, Sonic the hedgehog and Miles "Tails" Prower the two-tailed fox, come no where near touching his stature. Sonic is only able to beat Robotnik through brute muscle and speed, not intellect. Tails, while the "good genius" in the series, hardly has an iota of Robotnik's ability. Tails has been shown to have made several inventions and can operate an aircraft and special-made weapons, but it pales in comparison to Robotnik's countless inventions, ranging from robots with advanced artificial intelligence, multiple air and spacecrafts, specialized one-person vehicles that can levitate through air, drive on land, and submerge themselves in water and lava; and more. Sonic and Tails, at the very least, enjoy the moral high ground in that they only work to resist Robotnik's enslavement, but damn is Robotnik mentally active!

Mega Man is another well-known series. Citing the American storyline, Albert Wily is a scientist who became angry and evil after the world ignored his contribution to creating humanoid robots, so he broke from his partner Dr. Thomas Light and spent the rest of his life trying to enslave the world. While he is defeated every time by Mega Man and Dr. Light's inventions, one can observe that Wily has a significant edge in his competence over Dr. Light. From game to game Dr. Light is shown to have hardly been active in his line of work, producing few inventions and upgrades for Mega Man. Dr. Wily, on the other hand, has in the same length of time produced an army of robots and fortresses. The robots are oftentimes superior to Mega Man's design, whether it be in increased functionality (able to fly, move quicker, etc.) or greater strength (sometimes being capable of destroying Mega Man in two blows or less). Dr. Wily even invented a robot that can alter its own design through a biologic-like process of evolution.

Mega Man and Dr. Light disappointingly have severe moral failures and foolishness that makes them pathetic as heroes. Light and MM hold onto pacifist predispositions even as they recognize violence is necessary to combat Wily. They continue to trust Wily's assertions even after witnessing an asinine amount of lying from him, and Wily takes full advantage of their stupidity every time. The only time Mega Man came close to obtaining practical morality is when he nearly executed Wily in Mega Man 7, but Wily was able to distract him with questions about his morality long enough to be teleported away to safety. It's even more frustrating since it was demonstrated in this game that Wily is too dangerous to simply be alive, even if imprisoned in a maximum security facility, as he was able to create robots to break him out after six months of absence from his labs.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. The parallel between these series is that the villains are beings of great ability, competence, and desirable human traits, shamefully wasted to evil pursuits, while the heroes are lesser beings that defeat the evil not by besting them in their own realms, but at strategy.

This explains to me something I've been puzzled by for years: Why conventional heroes in general never succeeded in impressing me, and why I actually liked the villains. With very few exceptions -- such as Atlas Shrugged, Ironman, or Disney's Hercules -- I've never found much satisfaction in witnessing the villains get defeated, not only because they were of such interesting characters, but also because they were defeated by unworthy people, such as Dr. Wily's easily duped, pacifist Mega Man.

Expanding these thoughts to cultural commentary in general, it's discomforting to see such desirable and admirable characteristics, such as extreme intelligence, resolve, wealth, and work ethic, be given to the villains while the heroes are deprived. In all honesty I don't think the creators of these stories and products really believe that things such as intelligence and resolve are evil things that should be despised, but they've integrated, whether they know it or not, elements of bad philosophies that make these portrayals logical and near automatic of their consciousness. Conventional philosophy and rank emotionalism holds that things such as a questioning mind, ambitiousness, unequal ability, and so on are undesirable and should be avoided and detested. It makes sense, then, that the creators who integrate these premises make their villains intelligent (they use their minds to learn the nature of reality), in pursuit of dramatically high goals (not know their "place"), ahead-of-the-era competence (thus "unfairly" better than the rest of population), and more. It also follows that in order to make the heroes righteous by these standards they must lack the traits the villains possess, so here we have the spectacle of heroes possessing average or below-average intelligence, no central purpose in life, average competence, poverty, and so on. Sadly, the traits that would make a great hero, a hero you would want to see win, is more often given to the villain who is set to be destroyed in the end.

But not Bowser hopefully. He has, after all, come back from death with full mental and physical health, and will probably be around for years still to come. It might even be worth speculating that Bowser's brand of dictatorship may be better than Peach's, since we don't know specifically what he would do after taking control, and it seems as if though the only person he truly wants to kill is Mario, as he's never been seen murdering any of Peach's subjects, instead choosing to jail them. At the very least it's hardly debatable that Bowser operates a more competent army and could better protect his jurisdiction, as demonstrated by his defeating armies world-wide.

I don't think I'll ever get into video games as intensely as I have before, but I might always enjoy a good Mario game. Hopefully we see more of Bowser's adventures.

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